Richard M. Benjamin: Mark Another Coup for David Axelrod

The threesome – or Man Date – between the President, Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley, and Skip Gates bears the slight fingerprints of David Axelrod.


The President’s 2008 campaign put a premium on comforting skittish white voters to look past Obama’s skin color and “exotic” profile. David Axelrod, Bam’s chief political strategist, is a “cross-over specialist,” a political hand particularly skilled at making black politicians palatable – and even appealing – to white voters.

Bam’s mea culpa – his conciliatory about face – has the distinct whiff of Axelrod’s brand of racial healing.

More, importantly, the controversy surrounding Gates-gate has a lot to do with Class. Socio-economic class, not schoolroom.

The call’s transcripts show that Lucia Whalen, who placed the 911 call, never specified Skip Gates’s race (black). She just knew (and stated) that he was not white — probably “Hispanic.”

Also, through her attorney, Ms. Whalen insisted that she falls “outside the plain lines of race.
“The fact is,” Ms. Whalen’s attorney reports, “she’s olive-skinned and of Portuguese descent. You wouldn’t look at her and say, necessarily, ‘Oh, there’s a white woman.’ You might think she was Hispanic.”

Race became an issue – especially for Gates – once the officer pushed into Gates’ home, demanded to see his ID – yet declined properly to show ID himself.

Disturbing discrepancies mark Whalen’s account of the episode versus Sgt Crowley’s. For example, the officer, in his police report, claims he spoke to Ms. Whalen at the scene.

But Wendy Murphy, an attorney who represents Whalen, categorically rejects the part of the police report that states Whalen talked with Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, at the scene.

“Let me be clear: She never had a conversation with Sgt. Crowley at the scene,” Murphy told CNN by phone. “And she never said to any police officer or to anybody ‘two black men.’ She never used the word ‘black.’ Period.”

An innocuous discrepancy? Or a falsified police report?

What a comedy of errors in this racial and class imbroglio! When the accused is poor and nameless, then it’s not quite as funny. No CNN reports and beer invitations follow…

According to a groundbreaking 2008 study, whites rate a neighborhood much more favorably when whites dominate its make-up, even when controlling for the quality of the neighborhood. Randomly selected white adults from the Chicago and Detroit metropolitan areas were shown videos of identical neighborhoods and asked to evaluate features, such as the home values, perceived safety, and the quality of area schools. While the neighborhoods in the videos were identical, the residents were not; some respondents saw the neighborhoods sprinkled with black residents, others saw the same neighborhoods with only white residents. According to the study, whites who saw white residents in the video rated the neighborhood more favorably than whites who saw black residents in the identical neighborhood. And the more negative the stereotypes white respondents held of blacks generally, the more likely they were to negatively rate the identical neighborhood with a visible black presence.

Why do economic and racial segregation still dog us in 2009–the forty-fifth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act–and what, if anything, can be done?

Aggravating Boston’s racial turmoil, of course, are class divides. The Cambridge police force that arrested Skip Gates is charged with keeping the upscale enclave “safe” from some decidedly downscale neighborhoods nearby. Wealthy communities abutting poor ones often produce a class anxiety that borders on paranoia. Ms. Whalen, who failed to recognize Gates, works at Harvard magazine. Does Whalen suffer from said class anxiety, as opposed to racism? Perhaps. Such community anxiety – every “outsider” is a suspect – often demands “tough” policing, which curdles into abusive policing.

Beyond the racial kerfuffle, the less discussed problem: How poor people, and perceived outsiders like Gates and the cabbie, get abused in a mini Police State where police see their first and foremost duty as protecting the property of the wealthy.

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